Sunday, February 19, 2017

Poem366: ARMOR, AMOUR by Amy Pence



Hooray for the AWP Conference, which afforded me an opportunity to see all kinds of gorgeous new poetry books on display at the book fair.

Actually, on Saturday, the last day of the conference and fair, I attempted to execute a plan to gather review copies for my Better View of the Moon daily poetry book feature. A lot of presses offer deep discounts and giveaways on the last day, simply to cut down on the amount they have to ship or schlep home—I’ve been in that position, and finding readers for a press’ or journal’s writers was always my top priority as each book fair came to a close.

But things didn’t go quite the way I planned. At the very first place I stopped, a university press from the Deep South, I asked if they had any review copies they would be interested in parting with, and the publisher regarded me with deep suspicion. He asked for my card. (Better View of the Moon does not currently have a card.)

So, amid hundreds of tables of poetry publishers who would happily mail me a copy upon request, I found myself frozen by the unfriendliness and suspicion of one publisher. That’s when I ran into a longtime friend, Sandra Meek, who is a founding editor of ninebark press. Sandra was signing her own book, An Ecology of Elsewhere, at her publisher’s (Persea Books) table, and she directed me to the ninebark display, and invited me to pick up a copy of Armor, Amour by Amy Pence (published by ninebark in 2012).

I’m so glad I did. This little book is, first off, lovely to behold. It is horizontally configured, 5.5 inches tall and 7.5 inches wide, so it fits nicely in the hand, and it features a stunning Art Deco-inspired painting of a winged woman titled “Winged, I Leave” by artist Seth Fitts. The lettering is a nostalgic script—hand-type calligraphy—and the background color is a dreamy peachy-pink. It’s a pretty book outside, but what’s inside is much too complicated for that adjective.

The book is broken into sections with titles like “Regret—,” “Vanity—,” “Suffering—,” and more. The poems start small, with a “Preamble” poem, only five lines, setting the scene:

Every soul says
relinquish. The sky
almost lucid. Stalks rise
where trees
once were.

It’s an uncanny little poem, and it sets an atmosphere that feels brilliantly at odds with the pretty cover.

I’m very taken with the first poem in the collection, in that first section that deals mostly with the natural world. Poems about flowers always demand to be compared to Louise Gl├╝ck’s flower poems in The Wild Iris, and “Balloon Flower” is right in that spirit, but entirely Pence’s own:

The pentad ache with air,
exhale our illusory life.

Don’t forget the bruisings.
Don’t forget what we’ve done:
Don’t forget—gasping open—

who we are—all five petals—
when we near it.

I can easily picture the five fat petals of the balloon flower, shot through with slightly darker veins than the pink or purple of flower. I like the picture Pence presents of the balloon flower representing wholeness that is easily harmed. It’s a fine metaphor for the poems that follow.

As the book progresses, the poems get longer and fuller, and they culminate in Section 6, “Velocity—.” In this section, the poems occupy a lot of horizontal space, with lines that read both across and down the page. The poems sort of enact a falling apart; they deconstruct and disintegrate in the reader’s hands.

In a poem called “Vessel / II,” Pence writes that “pain unmakes / what world / we had,” in lines that stairstep down the middle of the page, and I can see it happening.

In Pence’s final poem, “What Lasts,” her apocalyptic vision is fully realized. It begins,

Not the bones, not my hands            to cradle the ashes—
your bones                      Not the dogwood stuttering open: a gasp
                        an elapse: time—                  its movement
Not the icebergs withdrawing                                  the ozone opening
                        muscled outcroppings                                     weakened
                                       under waves …


It’s a beautifully constructed book, both to the eye and to the imagination, and I encourage any lover of poetry to hold Pence’s hand as everything falls apart.

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